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editorial

Women addicts need treatment, not prison

One of the most promising themes in Governor Baker’s plan to stem the surge of opiod overdoses is his vow to stop treating addicts like criminals. As Baker noted when he released details of the plan in June, addiction is a disease, and arrest and incarceration are no way to treat substance abuse.

A good way for Baker to start putting that sentiment into action would be to end the Commonwealth’s practice of sending women with substance abuse problems to a medium-security prison — even when they face no criminal charges.

Under state law, individuals with substance abuse problems can be involuntarily committed at the request of a family member, guardian, doctor, or police officer. They are supposed to urdergo detox and treatment at a licensed facility. But because of a lack of treatment beds, they often end up being civilly committed to MCI-Framingham, the state’s only prison for women.

While there, women who have been committed are treated like regular inmates: They’re strip-searched, issued prison uniforms, and housed with pretrial detainees. What’s worse, they don’t get the promised treatment for their addiction, such as individual counseling, educational programs, or aftercare planning. They’re merely being warehoused.

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A year ago, some of these patients sued the Commonwealth, with the help of several advocacy organizations, to end this shameful practice. This lawsuit, now in the discovery process, underscores the urgent need for addiction treatment options. The good news is that Baker gets it. His supplemental budget, still pending in the Legislature, includes $5.8 million to transfer current civilly committed women at the Framingham prison to Taunton State Hospital. Lawmakers should step up and pass this measure.

Lisa, a 41-year-old alcoholic, is one of the hundreds of addicted women who have been imprisoned in Framingham. She was civilly committed under a statute known as Section 35 in January and spent 22 days at MCI-Framingham, until a mental health official at the prison recommended her release. “Nobody said nothing to me, nobody explained the process,” says Lisa, who didn’t want to use her real name. “I mean, I didn’t commit a crime. I was shackled, handcuffed. . . . It was horrible. I would never want anybody go through that.” Seven other Section 35 women were imprisoned with her, she says. “You can’t go to an AA meeting [at the prison] because, they say, you’re not an inmate — even though they treat you like an inmate.

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“This is a disease, it’s nothing I chose,” says Lisa. “I still fight with it to this day. But scaring someone straight isn’t the way, and that’s what they do. I can’t imagine a judge would do that to their loved one.”

Fortunately, as attitudes about addiction have shifted, policies have too. Examples of this policy evolution are already popping up: There’s the Gloucester police chief who made national headlines by deciding that his department will be focusing on treatment for drug addicts who end up at headquarters. Methuen followed up with its own initiative and hired outreach coordinators to visit those known to be struggling with addiction.

Addicted men who get civilly committed are sent to a facility at the state men’s prison in Bridgewater — but unlike women at MCI-Framingham, men at Bridgewater receive addiction treatment under medical supervision. While Baker’s move to add more treatment beds is a step in the right direction, a permanent remedy is needed to end the practice of “treating” women for substance abuse by committing them to MCI-Framingham.